Luther: A Life
by John M. Todd



This is an attempt to provide a brief account of the theory and practice of indulgences in relation to Luther’s criticism, in language as far as possible nontechnical without losing any theological nuance. It as impossible to make a really simple explanation. Twentieth-century Roman Catholic preachers find it hard to explain indulgences to congregations. For a more complete expose, together with extracts from many of the most important historical documents, see Sacraments and Forgiveness. Paul F. Palmer, SJ (Volume II, Sources of Christian Theology, pp. 32 321-69). Among these texts is a masterly theoretical rationale provided for indulgences by Aquinas. Nothing short of Luther’s ‘dynamic’ theology would suffice to contradict the answers provided by Aquinas to the obvious objections. But his rationale ends with an economically worded warning whose implications are exceedingly far-reaching and implicitly add a very strong rider to any conclusion that might be drawn from his doctrinal expose, such as that indulgences should be widely granted and the people strongly encouraged to use them: ‘. . . yet other works of satisfaction are more meritorious with respect to our essential reward, which is infinitely better than the remission of temporal punishment’. There are two points in that brief sentence, and the failure of the medieval Church to observe them or to reform its practice in conformity with them, is highly typical of the general failure to reform itself, with which Luther was so radically concerned.

Indulgences existed and still exist in the following Catholic framework. A Christian does not live a perfect life; he sins. He sins, offending against the Gospel, against a moral principle or breaking a commandment of the Church. Subsequently he is sorry for this lapse, turns to God inwardly and is forgiven. His sin was not only an act against his own nature destined for glory with God, it was an act against God’s Church. It was an injury to every member of the Church, for all depend upon one another, the health of one works for the health of another, the sickness of one for the sickness of another. So, as when a Christian first joins God’s Church, he does so through the formal Church rite of the sacrament of baptism, and as when his life further progresses it is marked and strengthened by other sacraments of the Church, so when he had damaged his relationship with God and his Church, and, by doing so, threatened or injured that of others, a sacrament of the Church makes provision or formal statements of sorrow by the sinner, of God’s forgiveness by his Church, and for a means of spiritual help, grace, to help the sinner to carry out his intention to amend. The questions then arise whether the sinner needs to make reparation or satisfaction, and whether he must receive some punishment for sin. The Church seems to have given an affirmative answer in principle to all three questions from very early times. This does not affect the forgiveness always and immediately forthcoming from God to a repentant sinner who turns inwardly to God; reparation, satisfaction and punishment were linked with the Church’s formal sacramental ratification of repentance and forgiveness. In the early Church the sinner was only formally reconciled after doing penance, sometimes public penance in which the parish might join with him on his behalf, for a certain number of days. The sinner was excluded from the Eucharistic liturgy (a form of excommunication) until the penance was complete. Clearly the early Church only bothered itself with what Staupitz called ‘real sins’; shortness of temper cannot have been a cause for confession unless it led to murder or grave slander or some other such definite abrogation of the law. But people soon felt a need, apparently, to express their sorrow for the lesser things. In time they confessed more frequently; smaller penance was done, and this was subsequent not prior to the sacramental reconciliation. The sin hardly deserved excommunication.

When penances became small the possibility occurred to men that at the time of his death a Christian might not have done all the penance which his sins deserved in the sight of God. He might still be due to receive some of what the theologians later came to call the ‘temporal punishment due to sin.’ It was assumed that this remaining debt must be paid after death. The sinner had been completely forgiven, but he might still in justice have some reparation or satisfaction to make, or punishment to bear. To state it in another way, perhaps more in tune with the Gospel, the forgiven sinner might still need a further time of preparation or purging before he was fit for the marriage feast of heaven.

The Church then said that a Christian who had received the sacrament of penance, could by various good works, the saying of particular prayers or doing such pious works as assisting in the building of churches (by a cash payment) achieve release from some part of, sometimes all of, whatever ‘temporal punishment’ he might still be due to undergo after death. An indulgence was a statement to this effect — the Church promised release to the repentant sinner, duly shrived, on the condition specified, of undertaking such good works. And if the release was not plenary (a ‘plenary indulgence’) it was measured, and the amount specified. How measure punishment in purgatory? Only by some equivalent. The standard used was that of the old traditional penance, which was measured simply by days of visible penance and exclusion from the liturgy. So indulgences were issued as releases from so many ‘days of exclusion’, and they were intended to release the sinner from the equivalent in purgatory, whatever it might be, of so many days penance in the early Church.

All this was in harmony with the general doctrine of the authority which the Church understood that Christ had given her: ‘Whatever you loose on earth, it shall be loosed in heaven. Whatever you retain on earth, it shall be retained in heaven.’ Salvation itself is not at issue. It is only a question of relationship to the Church on earth, and in so far as it was linked to it, of punishment in purgatory.

Meanwhile, the medieval theologians had propounded an explanatory, mechanical theory of ‘merits’ which further rationalised the use of sacraments, and of indulgences. The saints and Christ had been good, and gained ‘merit’, far above what was necessary to avoid damnation and achieve heaven. The principle of solidarity, of the health of one working for the health of another, was transformed into an accounting system by which the merit of each member was theoretically measured in heaven, and all of it beyond what that member required put in a bank fur the help of others. ‘The treasury of merits’, a typically medieval gambit, was not really necessary for a theological justification of the granting of indulgences, but it helped to explain the solidarity principle for the canonically-minded theologians of the time, who also found it easier to encourage people to gain indulgences with this ingenious and readily intelligible theory. In practice this theory was translated so widely that it tended to overshadow the simple theology of the redemption of all men by Christ once for all, The scale of indulgences became a principal source of income for ecclesiastical authorities.

Indulgences left plenty of room for abuse, both in a basic doctrinal sense, and in their being granted for cash payments. When more emphasis was given by preachers to the gaining of indulgences — for instance, by the good work of making a cash contribution to the building of a church — than to the sacraments, the liturgy and ordinary acts of charity, then it was made to appear as though the values of the Gospel were being abandoned. Ordinary Christians were appealed to as though their first concern should be to obtain release from sufferings in purgatory by a cash payment. If the sermons were frequent enough, and enough publicity and external pomp accompanied the offer of an indulgence, it could very well be that the matter of salvation itself could become confused in the popular mind with what could be obtained by an indulgence. Then it was commonly supposed, and the Church seems specifically to have encouraged such a supposition, even though theology could not and did not finally support it, that a cash payment could in appropriate circumstances buy an immediate release from purgatory for the souls suffering there. The Church had always encouraged Christians to pray for those who had died; when indulgences began to be issued with the idea that they might be transferred to the souls in purgatory this was seen, not without reason, as a praiseworthy raising of the motive for gaining an indulgence, from something selfish to an act of charity towards others. It was commonly supposed and preached that a transferred indulgence certainly guaranteed a soul’s immediate release. But this cannot be maintained, in traditional Catholic theology, and the Church has not maintained it on the few occasions when the matter has been directly and authoritatively treated. This became one of Luther’s more bitter points of protest1 on a matter which was controversial and in fact remained in some doubt, dogmatically, for several centuries. Abuses in connection with indulgences were recognised and combated from an early time. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 was an early case of a formal attempt by the Church to prevent abuse. The doctrine itself was regarded by the more scrupulous as one to which not too much emphasis should be given. The conclusion of Aquinas makes this clear.

It is not difficult to see that the whole theological atmosphere in which indulgences thrive is inimical to the dynamic theology of justification which Luther had been working out. This juggling with ‘days’ to be got for so much monetary contribution, or so many prayers, the very idea that something one did oneself could produce a change, could cause God to act — all this would seem unworthy of one who owed a complete surrender to God, who could never be of himself worthy of the sovereign creator, but who had in fact been saved and justified by the Word of God, made one with the saints by the free act of Jesus. From a more abstract point of view, as we have seen, Aquinas puts out a very stringent criticism, sober and terse, though it is in the final sentence on the subject.

But the incompatibility was not absolute. Luther did not at first contradict indulgences in principle: He knew the value of simple explanations for the people. He never turned away from the broadly sacramental — in the sense of a visible formal rite — attitude to religion, nor from the Church doctrine of solidarity in Christ which provided the theological background essential for indulgences. Luther’s theses include a proposal (thesis 38) for a ‘correct’ interpretation of them: ‘The Pope’s remission and distribution are in no way to be despised since, as I have said, they are a declaration of divine forgiveness.’ But on the other hand they are to be given only a minor place, less than that of acts of kindness: ‘Christians must be taught that it is not the Pope’s intention that the purchase of indulgences is in any way comparable with the works of mercy.’

Luther’s primary concern was that the palaver accompanying the offer of indulgences, their mechanical side, and the emphasis laid on them had radically covered over that first essential — sorrow for sin, turning to God, use of the sacrament of confession. The tremendous publicity given in 1517 to the preaching of the most recent Indulgence by Tetzel and his preachers confirmed him in the feeling that the people were being encouraged to forget the essential inner realities and to substitute a commercial transaction for it. In the first place, then, it is a matter of emphasis. Instead of the Word of God the preachers are preaching a commercial and almost magical recipe.

But Luther was also concerned specifically with that part of the doctrine which involved a claim by the Church to release souls, whether on earth or in purgatory, from the punishment which they might need to undergo before they would have fully expiated their sins, or would be fit for heaven. The theses were of course at first a controversial technical matter, intended for debate, and intended no doubt to focus public attention on the undoubted abuses, theological and practical, involved in the preaching of the indulgences. It does not seem to be certain that Luther believed them all, explicitly, at the time when he drew them up. Quite probably his mind was open, he was prepared for some of the theses to be contradicted, proven wrong in public debate. In the course of such a debate, the theological bases of the granting of indulgences might be more clearly expounded, perhaps modified, and the abuses perhaps exposed, and those responsible for them reprimanded . This would seem to be Luther’s position from his Appeal to Leo X in 1518 in which he states dearly, even at this later date, his entire willingness to abide by the authority of Rome: ‘I shall acknowledge your voice as the voice of Christ who is enthroned in you, and who speaks through you.’


  1. Palmer makes it clear that though there must have been some doubt, dogmatically, about this in Luther’s time, and in the nineteenth century, the conclusion must be drawn that the Church has definitely declined to believe that a plenary indulgence transferred by prayer to a soul in purgatory can guarantee its release, though the Church hopes, as it were, that Christ will respect her wishes in the matter. It seems to be true that in this respect an abuse against which Luther fought still exists, since many Catholics seem still to believe that when they gain a plenary indulgence it can be applied at will so as to obtain the automatic release of a soul from purgatory. And the dogmatic implications are important, for they concern the matter of the claim of the Church to exercise a certain direct executive role in purgatory.